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Originally published November 28, 2010 at 9:45 PM | Page modified November 29, 2010 at 12:12 PM

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All-potato diet almost over; spud promoter longs for something crunchy

Chris Voigt's all-potato diet ends at midnight Monday, and by then he'll have eaten some 1,200 potatoes that total up to some 400 pounds. But he's 17 pounds lighter.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Potatoes by the pound

20 potatoes:

The number Chris Voight ate each day

400 pounds:

Total eaten during

the 60-day diet

8.9 billion pounds:

Total grown in state during 2009

One potato,

110 calories:

45 percent of the daily recommended value for vitamin C, 18 percent for potassium and 8 percent of fiber

Source: Chris Voigt

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MOSES LAKE —

The Potato Man proudly lined up a bunch of them on a counter in his family's kitchen: a really nice assortment of russets that, in the next days, would end up in his belly.

In what's indisputably a masterful promotional campaign for a product as bland as a potato, Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, made worldwide news by announcing that, beginning Oct. 1, his diet for 60 days would consist only of potatoes.

His diet ends at midnight, and by then he'll have eaten some 1,200 potatoes that total up to some 400 pounds.

He estimates he's done 150 interviews — the BBC, ABC, NPR, radio shows from all over, including, not surprisingly, Ireland.

After 60 days of potatoes, Voigt, 45, will have come out of it trimmer (he's 6-foot-1 and has gone from 197 to 180 pounds), and with considerably lower cholesterol and blood-sugar levels (all documented on 20potatoesaday.com and on a Facebook page).

So Voigt has reason to be pleased. The Potato Commission is headquartered in Moses Lake, the heart of the state's potato-growing region. We're second only to Idaho in potatoes, with Washington's potato farmers producing 8.9 billion pounds of spuds last year.

If you want tips on how to liven up a tuber, Voigt is your man.

He decided to live on 20 potatoes a day because he needed 2,200 calories a day, and each potato has about 110 calories.

That's an average of 6-2/3 pounds of potatoes a day, and, as Voigt explained, you have to be creative when you can't add stuff like gravy, butter, sour cream and bacon bits.

"I've baked, boiled, broiled, fried, smashed and shredded potatoes," he said.

From Tabasco sauce to garlic-paprika-oregano-thyme-pepper, Voigt has a kitchen stocked full of seasonings he decided to allow, as they don't add nutrition or calories. He also allowed himself small amounts of oil for cooking.

But one thing that he can't change is the basic makeup of a potato.

It is 80 percent water.

"No matter how you cook a potato, it's going to have that soft, mushy texture," Voigt said. "Even if you fry a potato, on the inside it's still mushy. I missed things like the crunch of an apple."

The potato's appeal

This past summer, Voigt became fed up with what he perceived as unfair criticism of the product he represents.

Give the potato its due!

After all, the United Nations proclaimed 2008 the International Year of the Potato, not the year of the carrot, or of lettuce.

And why the proclamation?

Well, the U.N. explained, in battling world hunger, "The potato produces more nutritious food more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major crop — up to 85 percent of the plant is edible human food, compared to around 50 percent in cereals."

In the United States, however, the potato was hurting in the public-relations department.

"It seemed as if the potato was being blamed for the obesity crisis, for diabetes, that it was the scourge of the earth," Voigt said. "Then there was the Atkins diet, and the South Beach diet. It made a tremendous amount of people believe that carbohydrates make you fat."

But what finally made Voigt decide it was time to do something dramatic was a recommendation by the Institute of Medicine that federal dollars not be used to buy potatoes for the Women, Infants and Children program, also known as WIC. That rule now is in interim effect.

Not only that, the institute also wants school-lunch programs using federal money to limit the use of potatoes, and a decision is expected soon from the Department of Agriculture.

It was all a personal affront to Voigt.

"They made this rule that you could buy any fruit or vegetable — except potatoes. That was upsetting," he said. "What was ironic was that in this report, they wrote about the major deficiencies in fiber, vitamin C, potassium, that make people sick. And those are the strong points of potatoes."

At 110 calories, it's not the potato that makes you fat. It's when you smother it with butter or other goodies.

But Christine Stencel, spokeswoman for the Institute of Medicine, says the scientists weren't saying potatoes were bad for people.

It is that Americans routinely eat plenty of potatoes, whether at home or at the hamburger drive-in.

"We wanted to expand the consumption to a greater variety of fruits and vegetables, greens, orange, red and other colorful vegetables," Stencel said.

Well, whatever.

If you're the executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, after a while you get thin-skinned about real and perceived criticisms of your product.

The meal mashup

And so Voigt announced his 60-day diet, proclaiming, "I want to show the world that the potato is so healthy, that you could live off them alone for an extended period of time, without any negative impact to your health."

After receiving a checkup and OK from his family doctor, Voigt was set to go.

Basically, he says, a normal body has enough of what it needs stored up so that such a 60-day diet would not cause harm.

His family — wife Stephanie and their two children, Christopher, 9, and Madeline, 6 — didn't change their eating habits because of Dad.

On an evening last week, Stephanie barbecued steaks for herself and Christopher, while Madeline had cheese quesadillas. During weekdays, when he packed his potato meals in plastic containers and usually ate at his desk, things were fine.

It was the weekends, while his family ate pizza, steak or bacon, that it was tough.

In one post on his blog, Voigt lamented, "Yesterday was tough. It was just one of those days where you really wonder what the heck you're doing. While I know I love potatoes, it was hard to keep eating them. I hung in there, but I was the star of my own little pity party yesterday."

Stephanie didn't leave her husband stranded in bland potato land.

In one of his blog postings, Voigt wrote, "I was in potato Nirvana tonight. My wife boiled a bouillon cube (he decided the cube was OK in the diet as it contained little calories) with potato starch to make me 'pseudo gravy.' It was awesome!

"She smothered Yukon Gold and Purple potato slices in this gravy and baked it in the oven for an hour. Then cooked homemade yellow and purple chips with artificial sweetener and cinnamon for dessert.

"It was heaven for a flavor deprived husband. I would marry her all over again because of this!"

But this actually was a more typical potato day for Voigt, which explains why sometimes his mood slipped:

"I had about a pound of hash browns this morning for breakfast, two pounds of mashed potatoes with black pepper for lunch, which means I have to eat close to 4 more pounds before bed.

"I'm leaning toward baked potatoes with balsamic vinegar for dinner, but I'm not sure I'm ready for 4 pounds of it."

A regular guy

Early on, Voigt began losing weight.

He wasn't eating 20 potatoes daily, but more like 14 or so. Potatoes do fill you up, and he was losing four pounds a week for the first three weeks.

To get to 20 potatoes, Voigt said, "You keep spooning, keep shoveling into my mouth."

He also took up that great American habit of snacking, eating roasted fingerling potatoes in between his major potato meals.

As the diet progressed, Voigt gained followers on Facebook and his website.

He tried to answer all their questions, even some that were quite personal.

John in Arlington, Va., asked him about, hmmm, how to put it, what an all-potato diet did to one's intestinal functions.

That resulted in a video posted by Voigt explaining the fiber content of potatoes, and saying he was "as regular as rain in Seattle."

He also received plaintive e-mails from parents of children with digestive problems.

"They had kids who were literally dying. They couldn't keep food down. It was literally the potato that saved them," Voigt said.

As Monday comes to an end, Voigt will be in a Spokane TV studio, doing a live satellite interview with a British morning show called "Daybreak."

It'll be past midnight when he's driving back to Moses Lake, driving past those beckoning fast-food joints.

"I might have a Big Mac," Voigt said, adding, "yes, with fries. I'll probably super-size it, too."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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